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Web typography


July 19 2011

2014 update: A combination of Windows XP hitting end-of-life, ttfautohint, and new open-source font releases has made it possible for me to have my web site use 100% open source typography (Modified Bitstream Charter for the serif body text, and Source Sans Pro for the sans-serif headings). Also: PT Serif looks a lot nicer when using modern font hinting technologies.

As I have noted in an earlier blog entry, is is now possible to put just about any font in a web page. And, indeed, Google has a large number of open-source fonts to choose from. All of these free fonts have the same problem: None of them are suitable for body text with current computers.

Sure, a number of them are very attractive at 10pt or 12pt using modern computers with Clear Type or other cutting-edge on-screen hinting capability. Unfortunately, there is still a significant number of computers without advanced on-screen hinting. Not only are there the Windows XP users who haven't downloaded the XP Clear Type update, but there are also Linux users who do not have cutting-edge on-screen font auto-hinting.

Until Clear Type or another equivalent technology is universal across desktops, a webpage's body text needs to use a font with full delta hinting. There are not that many open-source fonts with full delta hinting; the only ones I can think of are the PT font series (PT Sans, PT Serif, but PT Sans Caption alas doesn't delta-hint), the Ubuntu font, and Cousine (a.k.a Liberation Mono). And, oh, Arvo also has delta hinting, but not at the font size I like to use for text.

Ubuntu is a beautiful font, and readily readable, even at body text sizes. Indeed, a modified version of it (to reduce loading times) is used as the non-body-text font on my webpage. However, as I have noted before, this is a branding font so its look is a little too distinctive for me to be comfortable using it for body text. It is, roughly speaking, an open-source font that fills the niche of Trebuchet. In fact, on places on my webpage where I can't use Ubuntu on IE8 because of a bug it has, I use Trebuchet.

The PT series of fonts are attractive, but even though they are fully delta hinted, they were not designed with the screen in mind. PT Sans roughly fills the same niche as Arial: A font that works best when trying to fit as much readable text in as little of a space, but not as readable as a true screen font. Indeed, I feel PT Sans narrow to be the best open source font for condensed text.

PT Serif, coming from Russia, has, to western eyes, a very distinct look to it that is not entirely satisfactory, reminding one of dusty old books in a dusty old library. It's perfectly readable, but very stiff. It doesn't have the soft charm of, say, Matthew Carter's serif fonts like Georgia and Bitstream Charter. And, like PT Sans, it's not really a screen font the way Georgia is.

Cousine (Liberation Mono) is yes a very attractive on-screen font, but its web utility is limited since it is a monospace font.

What is missing is a true open-source replacement for Verdana. Verdana is the king of on-screen readability. The closest font in the open-source world is Bitstream Vera (or its derivative DejaVu), which would be perfect except for two problems. One: Its "I" (upper case i) is identical to its "l" (lower case L); I call this the "PayPaI problem". Two: It does not have full delta hinting.

If someone were to take the time to fix these issues in Vera/DejaVu, the open source world of typography would finally have a really great font for on-screen text. Any volunteers out there?

Perhaps RedHat will hire Matthew Carter to come out with a "Liberation screen sans" with Verdana's metrics and onscreen readability. Or maybe another patron of open source will foot the bill for a true onscreen font for body text.

In the meantime, because Microsoft gave away Verdana and the rest of their web core fonts for years with a license that allows redistribution, Linux users can legally download and install Verdana on their computer, and it appears that about 65% of Linux users have done just that. Windows and Mac users, naturally, all have Verdana.

Of course, with Windows XP approaching its end of life and being replaced by Windows 7, and with Linux's font auto-hinting very slowly but surely improving, most likely the need for a fully delta hinted font for onscreen text will become a non-issue a few years down the road. But that is the future; using a non-delta-hinted font for onscreen body text is still not possible in a 2011 cross-platform web page design.

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